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Merlin squadron commanding officer speaks of Carrier Strike Group pride

Merlin helicopter of 820 NAS are deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth as part of the UK Carrier Strike Group. Picture: POPhot Jay Allen
The man in charge of a Royal Navy helicopter squadron deployed with the Carrier Strike Group has revealed what makes his job so rewarding.

The task group, led by Royal Navy flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed from the UK last weekend for their global deployment.

And on board the carrier is the Fleet Air Arm's 820 Naval Air Squadron, whose Culdrose-based Merlin Mk2 helicopters are dedicated to protecting the fleet.

Leading the squadron of around 190 men and women – the aircrew, engineers and support staff – is its commanding officer Commander Ian Varley.

He said: “I see 820 squadron as a family. I am the head of that family. One of the things I love about doing my job is that about 80 per cent of my people are all here on the first frontline squadron. They are either in the most junior ranks or, as they go through their career, they generally come into 820 for the first time in their new rank. 

“So, I have quite a lot of youngsters ­- and I use that term fondly - who are 19 or 20-years-old, who have only been in the navy for a very short time, and they may have been to sea once - perhaps not at all.

“For many, the opportunity to visit places in the Asia-Pacific will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They will be creating memories that they will keep all the way through their lives, and when they retire, they will tell these stories to their grandchildren.

“Being the head of that family is an incredible honour.”

The squadron has seven helicopters on HMS Queen Elizabeth including four fitted for anti-submarine warfare and three Merlin Mk2s converted through the Crowsnest programme for use in airborne surveillance and control.

Commander Varley, who is a qualified helicopter pilot and instructor, added: “The carrier deployment this year is the greatest achievement that 820 squadron has had on its books for the past 10 years. This is the coming together of years of planning and hard work.

"We have the reintroduction of capabilities and new technology in our airframes, in order that we can embark as a complete squadron to support our ships, as the UK reaffirms itself as a global power.

“In terms of the number of people we need to operate those aircraft, we will have approximately 60 aircrew and about 130 engineers and other support staff. That will give us the ability to fly aircraft 24 hours a day with between two and three lines, constantly supporting and protecting the carrier and the strike group.”

The carrier deployment this year is the greatest achievement that 820 squadron has had on its books for the last 10 years.

820 NAS commanding officer Commander Ian Varley

He said such a lengthy deployment was unusual and brought additional concerns as the sailors prepare for the many months they will be at sea.

“For those 190 people, we’ve all had to get ourselves ready in all respects to spend seven-plus months away from the UK and away from our families and loved ones,” he said.

“We’ve all had to get ourselves prepared emotionally, because we won’t get back until there’s frost on the ground again. That’s quite a significant amount of time to be away from our loved ones.

“We need to get our affairs in order, make sure we have all the bills paid and we have those direct debits in place, that we have our vaccinations done, that we have malaria tablets and other medication we need to do a job while we’re away so we don’t have to worry about any of those things.

“The parts of the world that we are going to mean we will also have to bring out items of uniform some of us have not worn for many years, such as tropical uniforms and hot-weather clothing.”

He added: “What I’m most looking forward to in the carrier group deployment is the chance for me to revisit some of the places around the globe where I’ve been to before. I have been in the navy a few years and I’ve had the good fortune in the past to do several far eastern deployments.

"So, for me, everywhere we’re going is somewhere I’ve been to before, but the chance to get back there again after 13 or 14 years, the chance to toast a Singapore Sling in Raffles again, that’s what I am most looking forward to.”

 

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